Ep. 249: Ahmed Hassan - The Evolving Role of Financial Leadership

January 15, 2024 | 31 Minutes

Join Adam Larson on the Count Me In Podcast as he sits down with the insightful Ahmed Hassan to explore how financial leadership has shot into a new era. Ahmed, an esteemed finance executive and IMA Global board member, shares how the roles in finance have shifted from traditional number-crunching to proactive, strategic business partnering.

Listen in as they discuss the impact of digital tech, COVID-19, and sustainability on financial strategies, the importance of people skills, and the rise of data analytics in decision-making. Ahmed backs up the talk with his journey in embracing change, leveraging automation for insightful analysis, and his advocacy for continuous learning through the IMA.

This episode offers a treasure trove of knowledge for finance professionals looking to adapt to the evolving demands of the industry. If you're curious about the future of financial strategy or keen on understanding the shifting focus in finance, this conversation is your must-listen. So sit back, tune in, and get inspired to take on the financial world with a fresh, informed perspective!

Full Episode Transcript:
 < Intro >
Adam:            Hello, and welcome to Count Me In. I'm Adam Larson, and today I'm joined by a distinguished guest, Ahmed Hassan, Head of Decision Support at Vodafone, Global Board Director & Middle East Committee Chair at IMA. In this episode, we'll dive into how financial leaders are expanding their influence beyond traditional roles, and embracing strategic, data-driven decision-making amidst global changes and technological advancements.
Staying ahead of the curve and fostering continuous learning have been key to navigating the landscape of finance. A world now permeated by AI, automation, and the need for dynamic skill sets. So, without further ado, let's welcome Ahmed, to share his valuable insights with us here on Count Me In.
 < Music >
Ahmed, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. We're really excited to have you today, talking about FP&A, and the roles, and your experience. And to start off, I thought we could start with how has the role of financial leadership evolved, as you look over the past decades. And what are the driving forces behind those changes, in the financial leadership?
Ahmed:          So, thank you, Adam. First of all, thank you for having me today. I'm very looking forward for a very engaging and exciting discussion, so thank you for that. Thank you for the question to start with, this is a very in-time question. So as the finance roles are evoluting, and it's not only on the last decade. So I think finance roles are evoluting since almost 20 years, as we speak. So it's undergoing significant changes that is taking place in the finance role as we speak. 
This is turning the finance function from the one responsible for financial reporting, and forecasting, and the normal finance roles that used to be. To the one co-driving organizations to achieve their goals and targets. So, currently, finance leaders spend more than 50% of their time on value-adding, business partnering activities. Rather than a typical finance department role and what they used to do, a few years ago.
So now we give more focus on casting a wider net for new efficiency opportunities, as we go. Boosting finance roles in managing data, strengthening decision-making process, through widespread adoption of data visualization and data analytics.
So this is how we look into how we use that data that we have, as we speak. It's mainly for putting a very solid ground into the decision-making and driving business, as we go. And the role of finance leadership is evoluting as well as this is evoluting. So the finance leadership has been influenced by several global forces, as we speak.
So definitely with all what happened in the past few years, in terms of COVID, where we will touch base a lot on the impact of COVID and how this evoluted. The overall changes that took place in organizations and then zooming into finance in specific. And also all the changes that is taking place in the world, either from a geopolitical viewpoint, economical, and all other changes.
So there are several global forces that are impacting the finance role evolution, including the growth of digital technologies. All the changes that I just mentioned. The importance of sustainability, changing demographics, complexities that are taking place in the geopolitics, as I mentioned, and all the dependencies that are making transformation or structural transformation a must, during these times.
All these forces actually led to all the evolution that is taking place in the finance role and in the finance leadership role, as a result, as well. So this all led to a greater focus on collaboration and people-oriented leadership. As well as the need for managers to take important decisions, with input from their teams based on a very robust data analytics that is generated from the finance functions.
Adam:            I think that's a really good overview in the evolution of the finance leadership, and how the team is changing as the environment changes. And when you think about the environment changing, and the term a lot of people use is business partner. And, so, in order to do that transformation that you just talked about, you have to become that business partner.
And, so, are there key strategies that people should consider when they're trying to, "Hey, I want to become that business partner. I don't think I'm there, yet." What are some strategies that they can apply in their own roles, so that they can make sure they're becoming that? 
Ahmed:          Okay, so transitioning, which comes also as a result of what we mentioned, the evolution that took place in finance. So finance, as we speak, in different roles, are business partners. And this is not only in a function that is named business partner or decision support in finance. I think this is across all finance roles. So this will take place in FP&A, as an evolution of the role.
Definitely in all decision support roles and finance business partnering roles, in different areas of finance operations, treasury, tax, supply chain. So this is all different types of business partnering in finance. If we need to focus on what are the key skills or developments, that a finance guy should adopt to be a business partner. We can start focusing on some points. So building a strategic engagement with the business. So this is a key thing that has to take place in a finance role.
Building strong relationships with all stakeholders, is fundamental to effective engagement with different business functions. Spending time to know your stakeholders, understanding their priorities, and be ready to challenge points they may not have considered, or maybe it's not a focal point for them. While actually it's something risky that you need to highlight.
Ensuring that analysis and reporting provided is aligning to the key strategic directions that the stakeholders need to see, and not only what is accessible and meaningful to finance specific. So it's that perfect merge between finance and all the other business requirements that is taking place. One other point, actually, that is key for finance people to develop is developing the strategic insight.
So insightful analysis and reporting need to have relevance and impact to the business in general. This requires taking extra steps to look at the data beyond the routine reporting. To understand whether there are further questions to be explored and what are the resulting actions that might take place out of this. 
One other point that is key is communicating better through visualization. So data visualization is key whenever it comes to finance people. So visualization is very powerful, and it's a tool for communication for the complex information that you might have. So as I'm coming from a telecom industry, some of the terms and some of the projects that we work on, are very technical. 
So some of them, you need to illustrate them in a very nice visual way. So when you speak about the financials of such projects. When you speak about how network speaks with each other. When you speak about a new technology that you need to adopt and how you are business casing for this.
So data visualization is key to make things simpler, and to make it more adapting to the decision making process that we have. So communicating through better visualizations is key. This will make the stakeholders understand and act on your insights in a more easier way. 
One last thing that I need to highlight is believing in change and sponsoring it, actually. So change is what we live as we speak. So in the last few years, we are doing nothing but change. So starting from all the economic changes that took place, in the last years. Moving through COVID and then all the geopolitical changes that is taking place in the world, this is all demanding us to change.
In case you are not sponsoring such change, this is something that will be an issue. So sponsoring change, being part of it is key. This is driving, on the other side, lots of changes technically and the way we do work. So all those changes have to be adopted. You need to believe in such change. You need to believe in what you do, you need to sponsor it and make it part of your normal daily life that you have.
So being part of such changes, sponsoring, living it is key. This makes us open, actually, always for new ideas, and ways of working, and having this willingness to change and challenge the status quo of what we do, currently, and how we can do it more efficient to serve all the future demand. So I think those are all key things that someone needs to develop, to transition from a normal finance role to a business partner role.
Adam:            Well, and we can't talk about this transition without talking about the tools and the platforms that you need. Because in order to be more efficient, in order to analyze data better, in order to do all these things, we need good tools.
Ahmed:          Yes.
Adam:            And, so, maybe, we can discuss a little bit about some of those tools. What are some tools that you use, that you support, that you think can help somebody, as they're coming into this role? To become that better business partner, and to help guide their organization by making the best choices because they're using good tools.
Ahmed:          Sure, so I'll touch base on some of the points that someone, as a business partner, need to adopt in order to use it as tools for effective business partnering. So I'll start with some key competencies, actually, that finance professional should adopt to make this happen. So it may be start with helping to prevent poor operational decisions, and to get rid of all the routine work that someone do.
Understanding your business model and drivers is one key quality that a finance business partner need to put it. As one key thing for the business development, and therefore their professional development, along with other competencies, that includes the ability to understand the goals and the overarching strategies of the business. And analyzing financial and nonfinancial information, and present recommendations to support the decision-making process.
Additionally, business leaders seek active partnership and collaboration from finance professionals. Who can grasp the larger goals of the business and translate it, and put it into the financial view that needs to be very clear to the business, and to the executives, and top management of the business. So all these are key tools, actually, for finance people to help in the decision making, and to be very efficient and very value-adding in their roles.
This will make finance as a role be a champion, on the enterprise level, and championing the transformation, itself, is key in this. Also, finance professionals should focus on being strategists and catalysts, in addition to playing the roles or the normal roles of finance that they do on a regular basis. Some other tools that helps them actually put this into action is the ability to understand the goals and strategies of the business. 
Definitely the analytical skills for analyzing finance and non-finance information. Ability to present recommendations, to support decision making. Active partnership with all business functions and business leaders. Those are all key tools for finance people, actually, to be very successful business partners.
Adam:            Yes, those are great tools because as you're evolving, and as you're growing, you have to upskill. You have to learn different things as you're going along, and it's very important. And we can't talk about any of these things, about technology, about tools, without having to mention automation, AI, technology, how things are rapidly changing.
And, so, as the role has been changing, you've been outlining very clearly how the finance function role has been evolving and changing, and how you need to grow. But when it comes to things like the challenges. You have challenges of forecasting completely changing, as we're going along. What are some benefits, as you're incorporating this new technology into things like forecasting, and planning, and automation, and we're looking into the future of finance? What are the benefits and the challenges, as we slowly adopt this across the industry?
Ahmed:          Okay, so I think this will make finance people more insightful and value adding, and I'll tell you how this will transition them to put this on this ground. Let's go back a bit and look at how the evolution of Excel, which were very basic, a few years ago, took place and changed actually how finance people work. And I'm just taking this as a very simple example, actually, lots of other capabilities had been developed to make finance job far easier.
                        But I'll start with a very basic, common thing, and actually how this helped finance people to analyze data in a better way. Visualize it differently, and definitely do all this in a much faster way.
This helped finance people to have more time in understanding the business, add more value into the decision-making tree. Similarly, this is what automation is doing now. It's facilitating the role of finance to be faster and more insightful than ever. This will put some systematic and routine roles on stake, definitely, which is the norm of any technological evolution. I'm not speaking about the finance in specific. Look at any other industry, any other profession, once you get automation into it, this definitely gets some other normal, routine jobs out of scope.
This never created a burden on anyone, but on people that are not capable to upskill, as you mentioned. Upskilling is key in such a revolution, and it's someone's role, actually, to put upskilling people one key objective on everyone's agenda.
This is to cope with all the changes. This is to make them on top of what's happening. This is evolution that we live, and, again, not just in finance. As finance leaders; what we need to do is to adopt the change, lead it, and drive it, and put it into actions. Putting all the efforts to upskill our people, to cater for all the future needs that is taking place.
This is one key responsibility on our shoulders, now, to make finance move as we go because it's now already in the evolution that started years ago. But it's an ongoing thing that we need to keep very close eye on, as we go. And I'll mention in here, an article that I read in McKinsey, that said that the responsibilities of finance leaders are broader and more diverse than ever, as we speak.
With the increased adoption of digital technologies, and all the other disruptive tools that actually made our lives easier, being part of the norm that we live now. It was disruptive for a period, but just because it was new. As a normal thing that we face with all the changes, change is not easy.
So when such disruptive tools are in place, it's not easy to adopt. Yet, it becomes part of our norm, as we speak. So by adopting all this, it's very key and pivotal role for the success of the organization and strategic agendas for each organization.
One other topic, actually, that I read in one article by PwC, that it's recommended for all finance functions to serve the ever increasing demands placed on their resources. By striking an appropriate balance of insights, compliance, control, and efficiency. All this actually is not coming but by adopting upskilling your people and putting them always on top of what's happening, and on the evolution, and the technical evolution that is taking place, worldwide.
Adam:            Yes, it really is, it's taking place worldwide, and we're recording this the day after ChatGPT 4.0 just turned a year old. And, so, as we're talking about automation, in that conversation is also generative AI, and it's reshaping how we do our jobs, daily. People are putting emails into generative AI, and "Hey, make this sound more empathetic." They're doing it on little ways.
But as we look at the finance function, and being better business partners, and even financial leadership. How are AI tools and these platforms going to help enhance our decision making, and drive better strategic initiatives?
Ahmed:          As you mentioned, AI is a tool. And as we agree, tools are there to make our lives easier. So it's not a tool to replace people. It will, by evolution, again, get rid of some of roles. Yet, creating some more insightful roles. And I'll give you a very simple scale on an accounts payable, for example, role in an organization. Accounts payable used to be, almost a few years or something like 15 years, 20 years ago, definitely dependent on the scale of organizations, but a team of something like 10 to 20 people.
Adam:            Yes.
Ahmed:          I don't think that it's needed now to have all these people doing accounts payable. But you need them actually to do business partnering for different business functions. So the volume is never decreasing, the people that you need is still there. It's all about how you are utilizing people, and how you are placing people where the value addition is needed. AI is a tool to make this happen. So let's agree on this as the starting point.
Adam:            Yes.
Ahmed:          So based on that, AI, as I mentioned earlier, is just a part of something that started a year ago. That is expected to balance the traditional things that we used to do and traditional responsibilities of finance, into putting more time to be part of being a strategist and a catalyst in the organization. AI can be applied in different sections in finance and even in non-finance functions.
So I'll give some examples where AI is currently being used in revenue and customer value management propositions. Some people started exploring the use of AI in different, various revenue enhancement and client experience functions, as well, and initiatives, this is all a current use of AI. When we go into forecasting and some of the finance roles that are in place, it's mainly helping them see things differently. Analyze data from a different angle. Giving them more insights, putting some risks and opportunities more visible to them.
So, again, it's an evoluting tool that we are doing the best to get the best out of it. To serve the purpose of business partnering and how finance people could be more value adding, yet, it is still in this arena.
And as we go, I think, our role is, again, to make people up to the latest on such technologies. To make them part of the change that will come out of this. To utilize the tool rather than to see it as a risk. And, again, this is my opinion, definitely, but it's still an evoluting thing. We will see more as we go. It's just one year of generative AI, as you mentioned. So I believe there are lots of more excitement to see.
Adam:            Yes, it's going to keep evolving and, maybe, by the time we release this, and then soon after there's going to be new things happening, new things coming out, and it's exciting to watch. And I think as professionals, we need to just keep an eye on it. Making sure that we're testing it and looking at it in the right ways. So that way we can stay on top and stay ahead and understand where our organizations are going. Where the people under us are going.
And, so, as we wrap up this conversation, I think this has really been a really great discussion. I was thinking maybe you could share a story or experience where the things that we've been talking about. The things that you've learned, that type of decision making has really played a role in decisions that you've had to make, and strategies that you've come up with.
Ahmed:          Okay, I'll split the question into two parts. So the way that all the new technologies and all the new tools that we have helped in being more insightful. And the other thing is how ongoing learning, and ongoing education, and ongoing engagement with finance people and the finance professional environment can help in such a thing. And by that, I'll touch base a bit on how IMA is playing a pivotal role in such engagement between people.
So starting with all the automation. So automation again gave us more time to be more value adding. So I'll touch base on some things that we are still working on and we need to put as automated. And whenever you look at profitabilities, what I mean by profitability, not the normal P&L. It's per product, and per segment, and per business line profitability. How would automation and having such a fast way, to see how your business lines and revenue streams are generating profits.
This definitely help and will always help a lot in a faster decision making tools. In order to adopt for changes that might happen to a product, for example, as a result of the geopolitical changes that is taking place. As a part of the economic downturn, some products are not as profitable as it used to be. Some revenue streams, some industries, actually, are downscaling because of all what's happening.
So having such a view, and by a view, I always link it to how fast you generate such a view on business performance, profitabilities. What's going right and what's going wrong. Evaluating all the risks and opportunities. All such strategies need to be very visible and very fast to see in your decision-making process. And, again, automation and digitization help a lot on that.
Then going to how actually ongoing learning is helping on that. So I'll just mention quickly, so I'm a CMA since almost 2013. So this is almost ten years ago. While actually I started volunteering with the IMA on different committees since almost three years, from the COVID year.
So splitting my experience with such engagement tools, with the finance people into two stages. The first one when I was a member of the IMA, and actually how the ongoing learning that is being acquired through different webinars, different events and interactions with finance people. Helped a lot, actually, putting someone, always on top of what's happening in the profession, this is one key thing.
Then moving to stage two, where I started volunteering with the IMA in different committees, and serving on the IMA Global Board now. This shaped actually the way I look into our profession differently. Because previously I was utilizing all the tools for my own development, and my teams, and my industrial development. When I took such a global view to look at how can we advance our profession, definitely I took a look from a different angle.
So from a global angle, covering all industries and all regions, that was key in my learnings, currently, and as we go. Thinking how contribution could serve the finance profession globally, not only in a certain industry or a certain region.
How this could make difference to people's career and professional development. This is something that I believe it's a very valuable thing to feel, and a very great purpose to do for the profession. Also, this is helping me in understanding the latest on different new initiatives like ESG, sustainability, and how this links directly to our roles as finance people, and finance leaders.
And, finally, actually, among the most valuable assets that I gained out of this is people. Where you find you are in an unstoppable chain of learnings and knowledge acquisition, that takes you into places you never imagined, actually, that you would go for. This is one key thing out of such collaboration, between different people from different industries and different mindsets. And as I'm a total believer that someone is never done learning. So this is one key thing that I always feel is ongoing and will never stop.
Such engagement that is being created between finance people within the IMA umbrella, made this even more emphasized and achievable, for me and for my finance colleagues, from all over the world, as we speak. And this is something that is taking place now on a daily basis, I think, not even in a very frequent basis. We do this actually as we go in a very frequent manner.
So this is one key thing that helped me in lots of my strategic views to what we do. Helped me in my decision making process, and the strategic formulation of what I'm doing and what I need to do for the future.
Adam:            Well, I think that's great and learning a little bit about your story, and your evolution. And I know that IMA, as members, we appreciate you as a board member, and thank you so much for your service. And it's really great to be able to connect with folks who've had that experience. And I just really want to thank you for coming on the podcast. It's been really great getting to know you and hearing your insights, and I know that our audience will enjoy it.
Ahmed:          Thanks a lot, Adam. That was actually my pleasure and honor, and, definitely, a pleasure and honor to serve the IMA, in such a view and such a place. Thank you, for having me, and thanks, again, for the very exciting discussion that we had.
  < Outro >
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